Tag Archives: indigenous artists

Maree Clarke Culture Worker

Maree Clarke has been an important culture worker in Melbourne for decades. She is from the Mutti Mutti, Yorta Yorta Wamba Wamba and Boon Wurrung. I’ve been looking for the right word to describe what Clarke does and I think that ‘culture worker’ says it all.

Maree Clarke, Ancestral Memory

Some people might think that ‘culture worker’ sounds clinical and neutral, without the romance that the word ‘art’ brings with it. Culture is a broader word, a wider set that includes art and a lot more. It doesn’t restrict, as a narrow definition of ‘art’ would, what kind of objects or actions should be included.

Clarke calls herself a cultural ‘revivifier’. Working to resuscitate and revive a culture is a heroic effort given that it had been on the brink of cultural genocide. Bring a culture back to life is not a terminal goal, it is an act of cultivation and growth as Clarke reclaims, re-thinks, re-imagines and re-interprets this culture.

I first encountered her work in public art in the city and Footscray (she was one of the artists in both Scar by the Yarra and Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom in Footscray). More recently I saw Clarke’s “Ancestral Memory” exhibition at University of Melbourne Old Quad.

In this exhibition Clarke explores the waterways of the Kulin Nation. The exhibition directly referencing the waterways of the university and the eels that still traverse them; next to the quad used to be a small lake and a creek. It is a contrast the sandstone 1856 building in its gothic revival style with cloisters around the quadrangle to create the impression of medieval England.

Two sets of elements hang over a large circular mirror each with their wall of interpretive information; evidence of ownership of land and a welcome to country. There is a huge glass sculpture in the form of a segmented eel trap at one end. At the other woven eel traps and necklaces of feathers and river reeds. The materials for the necklaces are local; the feathers from road kill and the reeds from the Maribanong river. The eel traps represent the aquaculture and ownership of the Kulin Nation, necklaces a welcome to country and the mirrors the reflective still water.

In 2018 I saw a lot of necklaces by her but I still don’t think of Clarke as a jeweller. I saw her necklaces at Craft Galleries, at Deakin Uni Campus in Docklands, and a whole display of her work in “Blak Design Matters” exhibition at the Koorie Heritage Trust. These long powerful necklaces that would be worth paying attention to for their cultural significance alone. Clarke has been studying the necklaces in the Melbourne Museum’s collection and creating her own versions. Thung-ung Coorang (Kangaroo teeth necklace) in 3D-printed form. (For more on Clarke see The Design Files.)

The scale of the eel traps and the length necklaces in “Ancestral Memory” is both an aspect of contemporary art and acts to emphasise the continued presence of Indigenous people.

Although “Ancestral Memory” is curated and created by Clarke it is acknowledged that it is a work in collaboration with cultural advisor Jefa Greenaway, several weavers and numerous glass workers. Culture work is always a group project.


Confined 10

I’m standing in line, about to buy a painting when the woman just in front of me buys the very one that I wanted. She must have excellent taste but I am so disappointed. I look at the exhibition catalogue again, before heading to the bar for a consolation drink. The same woman is just in front of me in the queue for the bar, fortunately she didn’t drink the bar dry.

Thursday, January 31 is opening of the Confined 10 in the Carlisle Street Arts Space at the St Kilda Town Hall. Confined 10 is the annual exhibition by The Torch, an organisation that supports Indigenous artists currently in or recently released from prisons in Victoria. The gallery is packed to capacity, there is a security guard only letting a hundred people in at a time, and there are hundreds more people in the foyer and the ballroom.

The walls of the gallery are full of paintings, hundreds of paintings; amidst all these you would think that I’d be able to find another painting that I liked. However, there are now there are more dots on the walls, not more dot paintings but red dots to indicate that a painting has been sold. The paintings that are just designs, without any images of animals are selling very well.

“It’s what the painting represents more than the painting.” I overhear the familiar voice of for Premier Jeff Kennett. He is talking to someone else just behind me in the crowd but I’m not surprised to see him. Jeff Kennett has been the Chairman of the Torch since 2016 and ensured that the law was changed so the Indigenous prisoners could sell their art. I don’t know what Kennett means; is he referring to the humanitarian value of helping people in need, or that Indigenous culture is more than just a painting. But I am still feeling the loss of the painting that I wanted to buy, its colours, its designs, Kelvin Rogers bold signature with date.

I shouldn’t have taken so much time looking at whole exhibition, photographing the couple of quirky works, like the wooden model motorcycle by Shane J, and gone straight for the buying. But the art critic in me wanted to look at variety of art on exhibit. For the last two years Shane J has been exhibiting some impressive constructions made from matchsticks and ‘paddle pop’ sticks.

Anyway, enough of the regrets, the speeches are starting in the ballroom. Kent Morris, the CEO of the Torch told the story of how an exhibition, a decade ago featuring 18 artists and 25 art works, grew to its current size with 217 artists and 230 art works. Followed by more speeches from Auntie Caroline, the Mayor of St. Kilda Dick Ross,  and Uncle Jim Berg, Gunditjmara Elder. The award winners were announced: Ash Thomas, Kim Kennedy, Chris Austin, Paul Leroy McLaughlin, Lodi Lovett, Veronica Hudson, and Graham ‘Gil’ Gilbert. 


The Intervention @ Counihan

Jason Wing’s “Intervention: Criminal” speaks powerfully. It is a giant paste-up photocopy of a photo of himself with the words “An Australian Government Initiative: Criminal” on a sign hung around his neck. The image has all the sympathy of a mugshot. In 2007 by act of federal legislation the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) legislation better known as “the intervention” removed the rights of the Aboriginal population in the NT. The Australian government gains political power by marginalizing and criminalizing minority groups.

Jason Wing’s image is the centre-piece image of the exhibition “Ghost Citizens: witnessing the intervention” at the Counihan Gallery and features on the exhibition flyer. (In 2009 I wrote about Jason Wing’s first solo exhibition of  in this blog.)

My favorite images from the exhibition are Chips Mackinolty’s digital prints “National Emergency Next 1,347,525km” “…and there will be no dancing”; signpost the incredibly vast territory that as an emergency is absurd. I had seen Bindi Cole’s work at the NGV’s Studio space last year but her series of photos are well worth another look to see the absurdity of the idea of the standard image of aboriginal Australia.

The paintings of Dan Jones, Kylie Kemarre, Sally M. Mulda and Amy Napurulla provide a colorful accompaniment to the other works and the bleak subject of the exhibition. Fiona MacDonald’s woven archival print of the landscape of James Cook Island at Sylvania Waters in NSW provides the contrast and made me question who is need of an intervention. There is so much balance in this exhibition between the works of 8 Aboriginal and 5 non-Indigenous artists.

The excellent curatorial skills of Jo Holder and Djon Mundine OAM make this exhibition a powerful experience. The Counihan Gallery has done another great job at bringing together art and politics in this exhibition, a feature of their program this year.

The subject of the exhibition is extraordinarily important to Australia’s culture and its claim to be a civilized nation. Considering the up-coming federal election everyone should make an effort least see this exhibition and try to understand what is happening with the “Basic Card”, the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act in the NT and the “intervention”.


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